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Why “God Believes in Love” is a Lousy Argument for Same Sex Marriage

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Even if God did exist, we have no way of telling what he wants. Therefore, “what God wants” is a terrible basis for making law and public policy.

How do we convince religious believers to accept same-sex marriage?

The opposition to LGBT rights in general, and to same-sex marriage in particular, overwhelmingly comes from conservative religion, founded in the religious belief that gay sex makes baby Jesus cry. So if same-sex marriage proponents want to persuade religious believers to support same-sex marriage… how can we do that? Should we keep our argument entirely secular, and stay away from the whole question of religius belief? Or should we try to persuade them that God is on our side?

God Believes In Love book coverLots of people make the second argument. Bishop Gene Robinson is one of them. And Bishop Robinson is a man to be taken seriously. The first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, Bishop Robinson has been active in progressive political activism for many years: he is a fellow at the Center for American Progress, is co-author of three AIDS education curricula for youth and adults, has done AIDS work in the United States and in Africa, and famously delivered the invocation at President Obama’s opening inaugural ceremonies in 2009. He’s recently written a book, published by Knopf and widely reviewed and well-received: God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage. Aimed at religious believers who oppose same-sex marriage or are on the fence about it, the book makes a Christian case for same-sex marriage: “a commonsense, reasoned, religious argument [emphasis in the book description], made by someone who holds the religious text of the Bible to be holy and sacred and the ensuing two millennia of church history to be relevant to the discussion.”

And I think this is a terrible, terrible idea.

I am an ardent supporter of same-sex marriage. What with being married to a woman and all. I agree fervently that same-sex marriage deserves fully equal legal and social recognition with opposite-sex marriage, and I am very glad to see Bishop Robinson, and anyone else, advocating for it in the public arena.

But the argument he makes in his new book, God Believes in Love, disturbs me greatly. I am deeply disturbed by the idea that God, or any sort of religious or spiritual belief, should have anything to do with the question of same-sex marriage. I am deeply disturbed by the idea that any decision about politics, law, public policy, or morality should ever be based on what’s supposedly going on in God’s head. I agree completely with Bishop Robinson’s conclusion about same-sex marriage — but I am passionately opposed to the method by which he’s reached it, and the arguments he’s making to advance it.

I should say right now: I’m an atheist. But before anyone dismisses my argument on that basis, let me be very clear: My objections are relevant to everyone. The things that trouble me about religion being injected into public debate… they should trouble everyone. Yes, my objections are strongly informed by my atheism. But my problem is not, “God doesn’t exist, therefore ‘what God wants’ is a ridiculous thing to worry about.”

My problem is this: When we base our political/ legal/ moral decisions on what we think God wants, we have no way of knowing if we’re right.

When we base our decisions on what we think God wants, we have no basis for resolving our differences. Religion is based on faith — and faith, by definition, is uniquely resistant to evidence. Even at its best, faith ultimately comes down to, “I feel it in my heart.” And if someone else feels something entirely different in their heart about God’s intentions, we have no means of persuading them that they’re mistaken. For that matter, we have no means of being persuaded ourselves if we’re mistaken. When we base our decisions on what we think God wants, it’s ultimately no different from basing our decisions on what we want… reinforced and amplified by the conviction that our wishes dovetail with God’s, and made more stubbornly resistant to change by the fundamental irrationality of religious faith.

Now, that’s okay when we’re just making decisions about our own lives. As long as it doesn’t significantly affect others, our private decisions can be impulsive, irrational, based entirely on our own intuitions and desires, and as intractable as we like. But decisions about politics and the law affect people other than ourselves. So they need to be based on sound reasoning, solid compassion, and the best possible evidence about what helps and hurts people… not on people’s inevitably biased speculations about what they think God wants.

Let’s look at Bishop Robinson’s religious arguments for same-sex marriage. If anyone on Earth was going to make a good religious case for same-sex marriage, it’d be Bishop Robinson. But his arguments boil down to this: “Here’s the correct interpretation of the Bible. Interpretations of the Bible that oppose homosexuality are wrong: they misunderstand Scripture and God’s will. When you interpret the Bible correctly, you’ll see that of course I’m right.”

We have two problems here. First, we have the whole “correct interpretation of the Bible” thing. As I’m sure Bishop Robinson is aware, interpretations of the Bible vary wildly. Why should we agree with him that his interpretation is the right one? Yes, he’s no doubt a Biblical scholar, and has studied the history and social context of the Bible at some length. But other Biblical scholars disagree with him. And they can quote chapter and verse, too, and cite historical context for their claims. In fact, throughout history, Biblical scholars have used their scholarship to defend: slavery, the oppression of women, the rejection of medical care, the systematic subjugation of Jews, the Inquisition, the Crusades… do I need to go on?

In his very own book, Bishop Robinson acknowledges the intense horrors promoted by the Bible, and the intense horrors that have been committed in its name. In his own book, he acknowledges that interpretations of the Bible need to be influenced by the best evidence that’s currently available, and by the best current morality we can muster. So how does he know that his interpretation is the right one? If he’s basing his argument on faith, then how is anyone else supposed to know which of the thousands of wildly-varying faiths to trust in? And if he’s basing his argument on evidence and reason and basic human compassion… then what do we need the Bible for?

Which leads me to a much more fundamental problem: When it comes to questions of politics and law, why should we even pay attention to the Bible in the first place?

Can Bishop Robinson (or anyone else, for that matter) make a good case for why the Christian Bible — as opposed to the Koran, the Torah, the Bhagavad-Gita, Drawing Down the Moon, The Book of the SubGenius, The Satanic Bible, or The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster — is the best representation of God’s will?

Skeptics Annotated BibleYes, Bishop Robinson’s Christian Bible says that “where love is, there is God also.” It also says that people should leave their families to follow Christ. It says that divorce is prohibited. It says that even thinking about something bad is just as bad as doing it. It says that listening to Jesus is more important than being helpful to the people around you. It says that anyone who doesn’t follow Jesus’ teachings is doomed to be tortured in hell for all eternity. It says that I, personally, have committed the one sin that is absolutely unforgiveable: not rape, not torture, not genocide, but denying the existence of the Holy Spirit. And that’s not the nasty stuff from the Old Testament. Those are Jesus’ own words from the Gospels. (Or rather, since I have significant doubts about whether the historical Jesus even existed: Those are the words of the Jesus character in the New Testament myth.) As I’m sure Bishop Robinson is aware, the Bible is shot through with historical inaccuracies, scientific inaccuracies, internal inconsistencies, outrageous absurdities, and moral atrocities. Why should anyone think that, when we’re deciding important matters of public policy that affect millions of people, we should pay special attention to this particular book? Or any attention at all?

The reasons outlined in Bishop Robinson’s book for why he’s a Christian are that: (a) he was raised a Christian, (b) he had good experiences with his religious upbringing, and (c) at a young age he experienced an altered state of consciousness in which he thought he perceived the presence of Jesus. With all due respect… really? That’s his argument? On that basis, he’s basing not only his personal life and private decisions, but his public arguments for how everyone else should vote and pass laws and live their lives? I’m sorry to be snarky, but: Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. And neither is a vague ecstatic feeling of the presence of God on the part of an impressionable young man.

I suspect that even Bishop Robinson realizes this. The bulk of his book makes an entirely secular case for same-sex marriage: out of its eleven chapters, only three (including one really short one) focus on the question of what God does or doesn’t think, and in the rest of the book, religion rarely even comes into play. And his secular arguments for same-sex marriage are generally quite strong: clear, straightforward, well-reasoned, down-to-earth, and grounded in reality and basic human ethics. I don’t agree with all of them — I don’t love his privileging of marriage and other normative relationship models, to the point of throwing less-conventional sexual and romantic relationships under the bus — but on the whole, his book makes good, clear secular arguments for same-sex marriage.

But his religious case for same-sex marriage is a hot mess. It’s contorted, confusing, self-contradictory, poorly reasoned, willfully blind, and blatantly self-serving. He argues that a Christian view of marriage (or indeed anything) has to prioritize Scripture over all other concerns, that “first, and always first, is the Scripture itself”… and then argues that the Scriptural views of marriage are inconsistent and often reprehensible, and don’t have to be followed. Shouldn’t be followed. He repeatedly points out the dangers of interpreting Scripture based on one’s own biases and desires… and then proceeds to do exactly that. At length. Even I think he’s conveniently cherry-picking the bits that serve the conclusion he wants to come to. And I’m on his side.

So okay. Maybe my argument really is, “God doesn’t exist, therefore ‘what God wants’ is a ridiculous thing to worry about.” But… no. That’s not it. My argument is this: “There’s no good reason to think that God exists, and even if he did we have no way of telling what he wants or of settling disagreement about his opinions. Therefore, ‘what God wants’ is a terrible basis for making law and public policy.”

Machiavelli The Prince book coverNow, some will argue that, as a pure matter of Machiavellian strategy, we should make a case for same-sex marriage that religious believers can accept. Some will argue that, as a pure matter of strategy, “God doesn’t hate gay people, God loves gay people,” is an easier sell than, “Who cares what God thinks? You have no way of knowing what God thinks, so keep your arguments focused on the reality we actually know exists.” Some will argue that most people aren’t atheists or agnostics, or even believers who understand that their beliefs are pretty uncertain… so if we want to shift public opinion towards acceptance of same-sex marriage, we need to convince believers that God is on board.

But when we make a religious case for same-sex marriage — heck, when we make a religious case for any matter of public policy — we’re conceding that public policy should be based on religion. And that means we’re conceding the idea that policy and law should be decided, not on the basis of solid evidence and sound reasoning and basic human compassion, but on personal faith. We’re conceding that if the Bible really does condemn homosexuality, then homosexuality must be bad. And we’re conceding that “I have no good reason to think this, I just do” is an acceptable argument in political discourse.

I am not willing to concede that. The presence of religion in public debate is harmful to the point of being toxic. It shifts the terms of the conversation: away from, “What is the most just, what does the most good, what alleviates the most harm, what makes society run the most smoothly”… and towards, “What is my personal interpretation of an inconsistent, wildly inaccurate, frequently barbaric holy text largely written in the Iron Age?”

And I think even Bishop Robinson knows this. In his very own book, he argues that “religious opposition to same-gender marriage is an example of violation of separation of Church and State.” He argues that religious bodies should not attempt to impose their will on the civil state, or meddle in its rightful business. So why is he trying to do exactly that?

Why is it not okay for homophobic fundamentalists to insert their personal religious views into public discourse… but it’s okay for the nice gay bishop?

It’s not like this argument is even necessary. History shows that, when faced with new evidence or better logic or a more compelling moral case, societies do eventually let go of crummy ideas promoted by their religions. Societies have held terrible beliefs, about slavery and science and gender and sex and a thousand other things, fiercely and stubbornly defended by religious institutions… and we’ve let go of them. It often takes time, but it does happen. And yes, people do typically make these advances by contorting their religious beliefs to fit the new evidence/ logic/ morality… not by letting go of their religion entirely. (Although that’s starting to change.) But it’s the secular case, the evidence or the logic or the glaring moral horrors, that these new beliefs shape themselves around. It’s the secular case that drives the change. So the secular case is the one we need to be making.

The minute we start making religious arguments for same-sex marriage — or for anything, for that matter — the debate turns into a series of arguments from authority, an endless and fundamentally unresolvable sequence of “This is what God thinks!” “No, this is what God thinks!” Or, more accurately: “This is what my preacher says God thinks!” “Well, this is what my preacher says God thinks!” And that has nowhere to go but around in circles forever.

So even when we’re trying to persuade religious believers, our arguments need to be secular. They need to be based in good evidence, sound reasoning, and basic human compassion. And they need to leave religion out of it. Period.

Comments

  1. Maurice Smith says

    NO!!!! No where in the Bible or anywhere else is it stated that God is in favor of such malicious, ungodly thinking!!! God is against such marriage, God says to keep your bed pure. Marriage is not suppose to be between man and man, or women and women, and we should not even approve of it. Even more so we are actually in Bible Prophesy… As I have said before we are so blinded by religion that when we are told the truth we reject it as a lie!!! WHY!!! Are we taking the advise of men, over the advise of the almighty God. Check out the word of the Lord and see for yourself.

  2. Maurice Smith says

    Oh, that’s not what God said. God created sex as a way for man and woman to have a period for intimate time between each other, and by this and the man and woman being one flesh God is happy to see your relationships working together. It really awesome!!! If your parents argue or your family can’t get along than know that it is not your family, it an attack.

  3. says

    @Maurice Smith:

    You are mistaken. The Bible is ambiguous. It says men who have sex with men should either be killed (Leviticus 20:13) or be exiled (1 Kings 15:11); but it also says ‘love one another’ and has multiple cases that can be ambiguously determined as positive endorsements of same-sex relationships (Ruth & Naomi, David & Jonathan). The Bible can be used to justify whatever you want, regardless of what is actually true or ethical. This makes it unsuitable as a guide for behavior.

    This merely is restating Greta’s point that “God believes in Love” is a lousy argument. It may reach a good conclusion, but it is based on bad assumptions.

  4. okobid okobid says

    Does the soi disant FREE THINKERS digest the case of inter-species marriage :D…. ok lets go in more human argument…. why most of the same sex partner could not be easy with the polygamous family when the individuals of the relationship tend to be very happily content with their situation!!!!

    you know, no one is perfect “FREE THINKER” :)

  5. janiceintoronto says

    okobid okobid @ #4

    Could you please rephrase your statement so it’s intelligible?

    Really, it doesn’t make any sense as it is.

  6. rowanvt says

    @Maurice Smith-

    For your first post, I thought you were joking. After your second, I’m now terrified you’re not.

    I will consider following your deity’s laws when you can prove to me, withOUT using the Bible, that your specific deity is the only correct one.

    After that, I will decide if those laws are moral or not.

    In the mean time, I find the deity espoused in the Bible to be malicious, cruel, and utterly immoral. That deity is evil. You may also attempt to show me how a loving/kind/moral deity would remove free will to create a situation that ‘requires’ punishment culminating in the murder of children, consider offering one’s daughters for gang rape to be good, kill a man’s family because of a bet with the Devil, maul dozens of young person because they made fun of someone being bald, suggest stoning to death any woman not a virgin on her wedding, have a woman who was raped be forced to marry her rapist and still be considered ‘good’.

  7. opposablethumbs says

    Oh dear, Maurice Smith, you didn’t actually read the OP at all, did you?

    “There’s no good reason to think that God exists, and even if he did we have no way of telling what he wants or of settling disagreement about his opinions. Therefore, ‘what God wants’ is a terrible basis for making law and public policy.” … The presence of religion in public debate is harmful to the point of being toxic. It shifts the terms of the conversation: away from, “What is the most just, what does the most good, what alleviates the most harm, what makes society run the most smoothly”… and towards, “What is my personal interpretation of an inconsistent, wildly inaccurate, frequently barbaric holy text largely written in the Iron Age?”

    Why should anyone care what it says in your preferred translation of a translation of a translation of a scattering of texts written by different people at different times and claiming without evidence to recount impossible events of decades or centuries earlier?

    Should we all live our lives according to the preferences attributed to Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Mayan gods or any of the million others? If not, why not? Then why according to preferences attributed to the malevolent tyrant of the xtian bible?
    .
    okobid okobid, you are very nearly completely incoherent – but I will be charitable. If you’re trying in your woolly way to say what I think you’re saying, the answer is simple: if all those involved are completely un-coerced, un-pressured, freely and happily consenting adults then there’s no problem at all (could be a bit complicated legally, I suppose, but that’s a separate issue). For example, a person might perfectly well have more than one husband, with both/all the husbands in question loving and desiring one another too. The important bit is the genuinely un-coerced consent and personal, bodily autonomy.

    But of course you get that, right?

  8. Maurice Smith says

    I don’t know what you’re going through although I do know that there is a God in heaven, and that He wants to have a intimate relationship with you.

  9. Dunc says

    at a young age he experienced an altered state of consciousness in which he thought he perceived the presence of Jesus

    Sigh. The first mystical revelation I ever had concerned Jimi Hendrix… I think I got the better deal.

  10. Brandon says

    My problem is this: When we base our political/ legal/ moral decisions on what we think God wants, we have no way of knowing if we’re right.

    Indeed – isn’t it funny how often “what God wants” happens to have a 1:1 correlation with the prejudices, biases, and desires of the person speaking?

  11. Dunc says

    I do know that there is a God in heaven, and that He wants to have a intimate relationship with you.

    That’s just creepy. Don’t make me take out a restraining order.

  12. junglekat says

    Excellent post, and I agree about 95%.
    When it comes actually making law and policy decisions, you’re absolutely right. It doesn’t matter whether any god approves of same-sex marriage, condemns it, is apathetic, or whatever. Even if Fred Phelps’ interpretation of the Bible is the “correct” one, it shouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference. That’s exactly what separation of church and state means.
    But I don’t think religious arguments for same-sex marriage are entirely useless in other contexts. I’ve known people who accept the secular arguments and agree that same-sex marriage should be legal, but still think it’s immoral. That means that, while they may be willing to vote for marriage equality, they still might not accept it if one of their children were to come out as gay (I actually know quite a few people who seem to fall into this category).
    That’s the sort of situation where I think the religious argument has some utility. Maybe not for marriage specifically, but for acceptance of homosexuality within a Christian framework. I actually am glad to see the religious arguments being advanced, not for legal reasons, but for personal ones. As long as we separate “what the law should be” (determined by purely secular principles) from “what people should choose to do” (decided by moral principles, often informed by one’s personal religion), I see no harm in arguing on both fronts. But you’re absolutely right that religious arguments do not have a place in public discussions on law and policy.
    Also, @MauriceSmith:
    I do know that there is a God in heaven, and that He wants to have a intimate relationship with you.
    That’s awfully forward of him. What happened to at least offering to buy someone a drink first?

  13. opposablethumbs says

    Hey, Maurice Smith! So, if you reckon we’re mistaken, that rather suggests you think you know better. So you should have no trouble explaining why, right?

    Go on then, let’s have some evidence for your position. You do know what evidence is, don’t you? (pro tip – quotations from the bible don’t prove the inerrancy of the bible any more than quotations from Little Red Riding Hood prove the existence of talking wolves).

    First, some evidence (then after that we can get on to the elevated creep factor of that “He wants to have a intimate relationship with you” thing you have going on). I won’t hold my breath, though.

  14. rowanvt says

    @Maurice-

    I don’t know what you’re going through although I do know that there is a God in heaven, and that He wants to have a intimate relationship with you.

    Dodge and weave, dodge and weave. Anything to avoid having to answer the valid questioning of the authority of your deity.

  15. says

    I’m torn between a couple feelings. One being hopeful that this will entice a few christians to back down from their anti-gay marriage stance. In their twisted little worldview a lot of them can only be persuaded from one interpretation to another by reading and being convinced to believe another baseless interpretation of their stupid book.

    On the other hand you just want to slap them upside the head and shout “No matter how you want to twist it you can’t fix what’s a stupid book. Just give up your fairytales already!”

  16. Greta Christina says

    Maurice Smith has been banned. My comment policy prohibits both comment hogging and religious proselytizing, and he has been doing both, in several different posts on this blog.

  17. And How says

    Haven’t you heard Greta?

    Allowing gay marriage will encourage people to be gay, much in the same way that hanging around tall people encourages people to be tall.

    We can’t have that.

  18. Sastra says

    This dilemma seems similar to the creationist/evolution one, where people push ‘theistic evolution’ in hopes of getting the public to drop its objections to the teaching of evolution. Just as you can make a case for gay marriage because “God believes in love,” you can use the Bible to make a case for God creating through evolution. You can helpfully rework what it says and means so that there is no conflict between being a devout Christian and accepting the scientific theory of evolution. There are a lot of liberal theologians, apologists, priests, and ministers out there who will help you.

    They will help you be right for the wrong reasons.

    And sometimes science organizations don’t just point these helpful people out, but come perilously close to pushing this Bible interpretation as the true one. The scholarly one. The right one. The honest one.

    Is this a winning strategy in general — for gay marriage and the TOE? Like you, I doubt it, despite its immediate practical benefits and superficial plausibility.

    Bet we both enjoy meeting Genie Scott in Madison next weekend…

  19. Erp says

    I haven’t read the book but Gene Robinson is trying to change two spheres. One is government recognition of marriage in the secular sphere. The other is his church’s recognition of marriage (e.g., marriages in church). In the latter the ‘God’ argument could be used since presumably the church members accept God as one premise and that they have a valid means of divining his intent as another premise. He is also attacking head on within his church those arguments opposed to change (in other words I accept your premises and I still think you are wrong).

    (Church here means his denomination, The Episcopal Church; the greater group of mutually recognizing churches, the Anglican Communion and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and through them some other Lutheran churches and Old Catholic churches; and Christianity as a whole. Some of subgroups such as the Church of Denmark already marry couples of the same sex but most are still arguing or are extremely hostile.)

  20. sonorus says

    This is just such a line of crap. The Bible is clearly against divorce. Churches are free to denounce divorce and people are free to stay in crappy marriages because they believe divorce is wrong, but they don’t have the legal right to prevent other people from getting divorced because their Bible says it’s wrong. Why doesn’t the same apply to gay marriage? If you think it’s wrong to marry someone of the same gender, then don’t do that. If your church thinks that’s wrong, then your church is free not to participate in gay marriages. But that church doesn’t have the right to set government policy for the rest of us.

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